The front door of her home down Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, is locked as well as chained and padlocked. This is a precaution not so much to keep intruders out but to stop the ‘insiders’ from running out. As she lets us in, urging the ‘insiders’ to keep quiet and not fight, she laughingly explains that [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Working with her pet subjects

The love of animals was fostered by her Ammi says Veterinary Surgeon and animal welfare activist, Dr. Nalinika Obeyesekere as she talks to Kumudini Hettiarachchi

The front door of her home down Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, is locked as well as chained and padlocked. This is a precaution not so much to keep intruders out but to stop the ‘insiders’ from running out.

A cuddle for a furry friend: Dr. Nalinika with one of her ‘patients’. Pic by Amila Gamage

As she lets us in, urging the ‘insiders’ to keep quiet and not fight, she laughingly explains that they are so clever that they ‘stand’ upright and press the handle down, opening the door without much ado. Hence, the chain and the padlock!

Other little pointers are evident…….a ragged cushion and a much-chewed red plastic bone. Welcome to the world of Veterinary Surgeon and animal welfare activist, Dr. Nalinika Obeyesekere, a name closely linked to both Pet Vet and Blue Paw Trust.
Having won the prestigious World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s ‘Global One Health Award 2015’ in May and returning home from Bangkok, Thailand, with the trophy, has given new vigour to her mission and vision to integrate veterinary and human health and have them on par with each other, a passion, nay an obsession for a long time. (See box)

This is not a newly-acquired passion but one ignited while she was a little girl in the home of her professor-parents, eminent anthropologist Gananath and academic in comparative literature Ranjini, in Kandy.

The middle child between two brothers, school was “everywhere” for young Nalinika – a stint at Hillwood College, followed by Girls’ High School, both in Kandy and finally Ladies’ College, Colombo, boarded with her grandparents when her parents headed to America.

The love of animals was fostered by her Ammi. “She was ‘an animal person’,” says Nalinika, 55, looking back at her exciting childhood. Whenever her parents, with little Nalinika tagging along, went on their numerous field trips, people would present Ranjini with injured animals…….and they were tenderly brought home by her ever-willing Ammi and nursed back to good health. The ‘menagerie’ in their home had the usual dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, bees and fish and the exotics such as a pair of leopard cubs and even a donkey and a pony. Most of the animals were orphaned. Realising that the leopard cubs would turn out to be a handful, they handed them over to the zoo when they were in good health.

It was when Nalinika was about 11 years old that she joined her parents in America but the lure of the wild had not left her and that was the line, Wildlife Biology and Management, she chose to pursue at the University of California Davis for her first degree.
To the query why, her answer is simple: “Wild animals are more varied and interesting,” says Nalinika, talking of the highly intelligent dolphins and elephants and the exciting variations of reptiles to name a few.

Humans are expanding exponentially, she points out, but wild animals are getting pushed out. What we need to remember is that when considering animals, be it human beings, the four-legged variety or those which do not have legs, the planet needs them all.

Returning to Sri Lanka armed with her first degree in 1985, she found that there was “little or no opportunity” except in government. She did some work for the National Aquatic Research Agency (NARA) and also the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) but soon frustration set in when she realised early on that she just did not have the patience or the tolerance to work in government. “It didn’t seem practical,” she says, adding that her personality was not suited to that type of work.

Long and hard she thought. If she wished to work in the field of wildlife she would have to leave Sri Lanka, but she was reluctant to do so. It was then that she decided to switch paths, though down the same road, and re-train as a Veterinary Surgeon, securing a Bachelor in Veterinary Science from the University of Peradeniya. Later, she read for a Master’s in Small Animal Medicine (MVSc) from Murdoch University in Australia.

The rest fell into place automatically.After working as a temporary Assistant Lecturer at the same university and being confronted with challenges similar to those she had faced earlier in the government sector, she joined two like-minded friends and colleagues. That was the beginning of Pet Vet back in 1996, along with Dr. Janaki Collure and Dr. Vipuli Kulasekera, a three-way partnership which is vibrant as ever, nearly 20 years later.

“It was here in a little room at the back of the house that we started it,” recalls Dr. Nalinika, pointing to a large beautiful Ficus benjamina tree which she says “came in a little pot” as a gift on the day of the launch of Pet Vet.

The nostalgia is barely concealed when she adds: “I call it my lucky tree mostly because as the tree has grown we too have grown.”
Starting up with each of the three of them contributing Rs. 100,000, with Dr. Nalinika’s “share” being the premises and other stuff, while the others forked out the hard cash, she says Pet Vet is the first multi-doctor veterinary practice and no one, at that time, thought it would survive.

The assumption was, she recalls, that three women could never work together. They also had only one assistant, with Dr. Nalinika’s domestic aides helping out.

But they have survived and as they celebrate their 20th anniversary next year, there has also been “exponential” growth — a thriving practice at Malalasekera Mawatha, behind the BMICH, in Colombo 7, employing a staff of 30 including 10 veterinary surgeons, with their ‘patients’ mainly being dogs, cats, birds and guinea pigs and their ‘clients’ being the owners.
The struggle for survival, however, is obvious as she speaks of getting zero-help from the government (under the Small and Medium Enterprises programme) or even the banking sector (securing loans).

“We’ve just rolled the income we got,” she says, adding that the three of them are “still together” as ‘Partners and Directors’ even though Vipuli is now based in America, but constantly giving inputs on standards.

From Day 1 though, their aim has been to improve their profession, according to Dr. Nalinika. “We’ve put a lot of money back into training and teaching, getting equipment and dispensing quality medication and not given much thought to profits.” They have however not been able to expand ward capacity because of lack of space and zoning issues, an anomaly they are hoping to address when they move to a new place with more space.

That, however, is one of the “huge problems” they are facing – with no priority being given to making profits, although their turnover is high, loans are difficult to come by. Now they are compelled to seek bank loans to expand, which in turn depends on how profits are invested.

For Dr. Nalinika and her partners though, the heart of the matter is improving the profession grounded on the principles of ethical behaviour along with good client care. Usually, many get into veterinary science because they cannot enter medical or dental school. Once they begin veterinary science, a small proportion decides they like it and that “it’s a great place to be”. For others it is just a job.

A good yardstick, according to Dr. Nalinika, would be how many vets have their own dogs. If you don’t have, you don’t understand the joy a pet brings. If a vet has a pet, he or she will realise that laying conditions to owners to do this and that to a strict routine, may not work.

There is also a problem with the education system, she says, for it frowns on critical thinking and analysis. Children are trained to regurgitate what has been taught to them but not question or stand up to what they think may be different. “This is deadly.”
Meanwhile, she tells her young vets that the real judge of how good they are would be if they get a cake or a small token from the owner even if the pet dies. Then it means that the owner knows that they have tried their best to save the pet but failed despite all their efforts.

Just before we bid goodbye to Dr. Nalinika, we are introduced to the others – the ‘pack’ — in her home…….‘Rhazi’, the German Shepherd, the dignified and super guard-dog which is also a total sweetheart; ‘Ginger’ the Sri Lankan hound which loves everybody and everything; and ‘Zheng’ the Beagle-Bull Mastiff mix which is a “nice achcharu”, the imp and trouble-maker. Their friendly barking marks our departure.

A vision for her four-legged friends

Well-known veterinary surgeon, Dr. Nalinika Obeyesekere’s vision is crystal clear. She is striving to bring the veterinary profession on par with other respected professions such as accountancy or architecture, while also working towards setting up a Veterinary Hospital that meets international standards.

Currently the only big vet hospital is under the University of Peradeniya and she hopes to set up one close to Colombo, with the land already being identified. It has to be a sustainable model not only environmentally but also as a business, a place which can be a hub for international collaboration, she says.

Another obsession is to make Sri Lanka rabies-free. “It must and should happen,” is her contention, for animal welfare is based on how we treat our animals and if people are fearful of getting rabies, a disease that kills, there is an issue.Working through government, the non-governmental Blue Paw Trust has done much work in this regard in Colombo and Kolonnawa but there is a need to expand to a national level to meet the aim of eradicating rabies.

The national level programme is expected to take off now that the general elections are over and the way forward she believes is to liaise closely with the vets in the field to find something workable. The National Rabies Plan is based on the theoretical global plan which needs to be fine-tuned and gaps identified. “Rather than a top-down approach we need to assess the situation in the field, and have a bottom-up approach working closely with the human health sector,” she says.

Then we could be the first country in Asia to be rabies-free. The target by the government is 2020, five years away, and globally 2030.


Global award for Dr. Nalinika

The ‘Global One Health Award’ of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) which was presented to Dr. Nalinika Obeyesekere at its 40th congress in Bangkok brought tiny Sri Lanka into the limelight. Her 45-minute presentation was titled ‘One medicine/One health: The ground reality for Sri Lanka’.

“This award is based on exemplary service by an individual, who has promoted the global One Health Concept, and, in particular, has highlighted an aspect of small companion animal relevance to the One Health Agenda,” according to WSAVA.

The recipient is chosen on the basis of either: Service to local, state, national and international One Health Organizations that have catalysed scientific meetings, exchange of information and international goodwill, for the benefit of the medical and veterinary professions worldwide or a longstanding history of active research that exemplifies the role of small companion animals in One Health.

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